Ariana Grande illustrates once again that she is an unparalleled pop chameleon on Sweetener, while KIN splits the difference between late-period Mogwai and the band’s previous film work, and Midori Takada & Lafawndah pair up for the tightly conceived and elegantly performed Le Renard Bleu. Plus Interpol, The Lemon Twigs, and NOTHING in this roundup of new releases.
Dev Hynes’ fourth album as Blood Orange, Negro Swan, is also out today; look for our review early next week.
Ariana Grande, Sweetener
Ariana Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, begins with a brief a cappella interpolation of the Four Seasons’ “An Angel Cried.” The 37-second song ends with Grande holding a sustained high note on the word “cried,” as if she’s embracing and then shedding the sadness implied in the song. The tune is a thematic harbinger, as Sweetener focuses on the power of reclamation. The title track describes a new significant other that mitigates life’s “bitter taste”; “God Is A Woman” obliterates stale stereotypes and preaches empowerment; and “Successful” champions the idea of women celebrating success and each other. Musically, Sweetener is Grande’s most diverse and enjoyable full-length yet, with her usual nods to ’90s pop and R&B augmented by things such as spectral electro slow jams (“Better Off”) and throwback hip-hop (the Missy Elliott-featuring “Borderline”). Confident and empowered, Sweetener illustrates once again that Grande is an unparalleled pop chameleon.
RIYL: ’90s R&B throwbacks. The adventurous vibe of early ’00s pop. Musical empowerment. Top 40 jams.
Start here: “Blazed,” which was produced by and features Pharrell Williams, is an early ’00s kaleidoscopic pop throwback with sizzling rhythms and layered harmonies. [Annie Zaleski]
Interpol goes big on Marauder, a booming, bass-heavy album seemingly designed to echo through the biggest, emptiest warehouse spaces possible. The album opens with an invigorating, hard-driving trio of songs: “If You Really Love Nothing,” which puts a swing on drummer Sam Fogarino’s backbeat that evokes Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos; “The Rover,” an advancing tidal wave of a song; and “Complications,” which injects fat-bottomed bass into the group’s signature post-punk shimmer. The rhythm section remains at the forefront on songs like “Stay In Touch” and “Mountain Child.” Frontman Paul Banks says the album’s title refers to a younger, more reckless version of himself that “fucks up friendships and does crazy shit… this album is like giving him a name and putting him to bed,” and like a wild party, the album gets looser and less coherent as it goes along. Still, fans should be pleased to hear that Marauder shifts the group’s focus while still remaining recognizably Interpol.
RIYL: Albums that instruct the listener to play them at maximum volume in the liner notes.
Start here: “Stay In Touch” eases longtime listeners into the album’s rhythm-forward sound, opening with isolated vocals and guitar, then adding big, fuzzy bass and drums, before swirling them all together into a regular post-punk cyclone. [Katie Rife]
Midori Takada & Lafawndah, Le Renard Bleu
Midori Takada was virtually unknown in the West until a few years ago, when her 1983 album, Through The Looking Glass, became the YouTube algorithm’s go-to recommendation for anyone watching videos of Japanese ambient, 1970s jazz, and American classical minimalism. The album’s cresting waves of percussion racked up millions of plays, leading first to a reissue, and now to Le Renard Bleu, Takada’s first new music in two decades. The piece is based on a Japanese and Senegalese folk creature, and Takada gamefully matches rhythmic patterns from the two countries. They keep their distance at first, swirling around one another like twin eddies, but then their phases begin to match and eventually flow together, and the complexity of their babbling is made serene by the tone of Takada’s mallets. Lafawndah, who composed the piece with Takada, clips and stretches her syllables to match the pulse, making this tightly conceived and elegantly performed piece of music the easiest avant-garde listening you’re likely to encounter this year.
RIYL: Steve Reich. Philip Glass. Björk’s Vespertine. The annals of YouTube.
Start here: As Le Renard Bleu is one continuous piece of music, there’s only one place to start: at the beginning. [Marty Sartini Garner]
Mogwai, KIN OST
Movie scoring has been good to Mogwai. Freed from the burden of having to create its own drama, the long-running Scottish group has learned the art of response; its work on Atomic and Les Revenants is a showcase for how bombast can age into stateliness and grace without losing its sense of power. With its songs that loom like smoldering towers and enveloping hazes of electronic programming, KIN, the band’s score for Jonathan and Josh Baker’s apocalyptic pursuit film of the same name, splits the difference between the average late-period Mogwai record and its previous film work, and when it dodges the temptation toward the histrionic, suggests that its future might lie in the space between its two vocations. “Funeral Pyre” ignites slowly and progresses with great dignity, and the new-age pulse of “Donuts”’ soft phasing bursts convincingly into outright beauty. Yes, it is a long way from home, but KIN’s brightest moments suggest Mogwai is still on the right path.
RIYL: Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. ( )-era Sigur Rós. Mogwai.
Start here: “Donuts” isn’t the first great Mogwai song whose emotional power is measured out in direct proportion to the ridiculousness of its name, only the latest. [Marty Sartini Garner]
The Lemon Twigs, Go To School
The musically gifted D’Addario brothers that make up The Lemon Twigs also have dramatic roots: Brian debuted on Broadway as Gavroche in Les Mis, Michael was the kid in the Chris Pine vehicle People Like Us. Now 21 and 19, respectively, Brian and Michael combine their theatric and musical talents into a straight-up rock opera on sophomore release Go To School. It’s the story of a chimpanzee named Shane who gets adopted by a human couple and unsuccessfully attempts to integrate into regular high school society. It’s an insanely ambitious, creative release, even if it isn’t as easily palatable as a retro-steeped Twigs rock record would have been (or as infectious as the duo’s March singles). Still, Shane’s saga has its moments, from the cocktail-lounge swagger of the school’s “The Bully” to “Queen Of My School,” the finest Big Star song that band never wrote. It’s the kind of complicated release that rewards repeated listens, as the story of a disaffected chimp translates into songs about the loneliness and longing for acceptance that linger even as high school fades away.
RIYL: Alex Chilton. Stephen Sondheim. Rufus Wainwright. Veronica Sawyer.
Start here: “If You Give Enough” offers an orchestral morale to Shane’s tumultuous tale, augmented by falsetto vocals and musical saw. [Gwen Ihnat]
NOTHING, Dance On The Blacktop
For three albums now, NOTHING has faithfully worked its formula: Use expensively distorted guitars to generate swirling, hurricane-force winds; situate Dominic Palermo’s muffled coo of a voice in the eye of the storm; wreak havoc on cheap laptop speakers and festival audiences alike. That the Philadelphia crew owe a major debt to the heavy end of ’90s alt-rock is so obvious as to be totally beside the point; there’s a certain kind of vulnerability to Dance On The Blacktop—the kind that comes with being overwhelmed, exhausted, and ultimately resigned to both—that only seems to grow under these exact aesthetic conditions. While much of the album intermixes the gritty and the gorgeous with all the economy of an Anton Corbijn photo, there are moments of open-hearted purity, too. But unlike just about every other band on earth, NOTHING is at its best when it closes itself off and spins into oblivion.
RIYL: Hum’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut. The verses of Loveless. Your Corgans hirsute.
Start here: “You Wind Me Up” could’ve been lifted from Dinosaur Jr.’s Without A Sound, but it functions as a palate cleanser before standout “Plastic Migraine,” a slowly raging waltz about Palermo’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy diagnosis that revolves—then degenerates—around the phrase “I’ve hit the wall.” [Marty Sartini Garner]
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